GIS For Dummies – GIS in Organizations

GIS is much more than just software and hardware. You need data, training, space, personnel, funding, technical support, and many other elements that work together to make your GIS function properly. Your organization must undergo fundamental changes in the way it functions, both in its internal and external interactions. You can make these changes extremely positive, if you incorporate GIS effectively. The guidelines in this chapter help you ensure that when your organization adopts GIS, the benefit outweighs the cost.


GIS fundamentally changes the way an organization works. Not only does your organization change, but so do interactions with the organization. You interact with internal players, meaning your organization’s GIS operators, managers, and other GIS personnel. But you and they also must obtain data, supply output, purchase equipment, get training, and participate in many other tasks that involve the larger GIS community, called external players.

Internal players include the following general groups:

  • System users: Use GIS to solve problems, provide solutions, and supply decision support for the organization. Their skills generally include spatial problem solving (for example, performing the actual analysis on the data) and model building (such as systematically applying large numbers of analytical techniques to solve larger problems).
  • System operators: Know the inner working of the software, can support the system users through troubleshooting and workarounds, and have specialized knowledge about the GIS. They usually provide security and training, as well. These people are highly knowledgeable about the capabilities of the GIS and its place in the organization, have advanced technical training, and work with the GIS every day.
  • System sponsor: Provides the financial support for the entire system. The system sponsor isn’t a person – it’s the organization itself, or a subdivision or unit within the organization. This group provides the funding for data, hardware, software, space, utilities, training, salaries, and anything else related to the GIS. Without the system sponsor, the GIS operations don’t exist. The system sponsor also makes sure that the system remains necessary to the organization, thereby guaranteeing long-term viability and preventing losses from abandoned GIS investment.

External players include the following general groups:

  • GIS supplier: The GIS vendor that supplies the software (and sometimes hardware), technical support, and training.
  • Data supplier: Two types of data suppliers exist, public and private:
    • Public sources Often government organizations or public GIS data clearinghouses, including universities that provide data on an as-is-basis (often free or inexpensively, as a cost recovery)
    • Private organizations: Typically charge for data but often provide value-added data that’s targeted to your needs
  • Applications developer: One quick way to address shot-term, project-specific needs is to hire outside professionals, called applications developers, to (guess what?) develop an application that has just the right data, analytical models, and user interfaces.
  • GIS systems analyst: Systems analysts look at the overall operation of your GIS to ensure its initial long-term successful integration into the organization. Many systems analysts, sometimes called system designers, are employees of the GIS supplier or software company that you purchase from. After all, who knows the capabilities of the system and how it interfaces any better?


GIS may be integral to the operation of an organization (enterprise); provide data storage, archiving, and retrieval; or act simply as an occasional tool for specific analyses on an individual department basis. These levels or organizational integration are often not static. Instead, they change when an organization recognizes the potential usefulness of the GIS for other branches of that organization.

Some people try to categorize the types of organizations that use GIS based on their level or integration and the ways that they use the GIS. I find this approach a bit difficult to deal with because both organizations and the systems they incorporate grow.


Many GIS designers speak of the spatial information product (SIP) – the planned output from GIS analysis. In most private and commercial business operations, the SIP is a product that provides income to the company. Some commercial companies produce output (SIPs) that they make available for purchase, and others produce output for some other organization that has limited GIS capabilities. In the latter case, the output still provides income to the commercial firm.

REAL WORLD GIS – Here are some example of provide and commercial company types that use GIS and the SIPs they might produce:

  • Mapping companies use GIS to produce maps for sale to the general public.
  • Consulting firms produce viable GIS models for organizations that operate GIS but lack the necessary personnel resources to create their own models.
  • GIS data providers develop clean, user-based, value-added datasets for other organizations so that those organizations can spend less time converting data and more time analyzing those data.
  • Economic placement companies develop location and allocation plans for businesses so that those businesses know the most economically feasible place to put their next store.
  • Real estate companies link their GIS software to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), providing its agents with the means to locate properties, provide virtual tours, and link properties on a map.
  • Vineyards use GIS to schedule plantings, decide on watering and applications of supplemental fertilizer, manage harvests, and control workflow during different times of year to guarantee the highest yields.

The applications in the preceding list have one thing in common – the development of a tool (a SIP) that improves the income stream of the organization. Such organizations are structured around that goal. GIS designs must complement that same goal – otherwise, the company won’t find the GIS very useful and won’t implement it.


A modified version of the spatial information product idea works in government organizations, accommodating the output needs of such organizations. Governments and government-related organizations are generally in the business of controlling and protecting large groups of people through legislation and mandates. And so, the GIS solutions that these organizations use provide information about people, as well as the factors that affect them (for example, natural and man-made resources, urban and infrastructure development, weather and environmental conditions, and so on).

REAL WORLD GIS – Here are some examples of governmental bodies that use GIS:

  • Management agencies: Control and protect the many aspects of the environment, including land use, agriculture, minerals, forests, ocean resources, parks, recreation areas, scenic natural areas and many others.
  • Law enforcement and corrections agencies: Identify, target, and prevent crime, as well as control and manage people who are incarcerated or on parole.
  • Medical agencies: Monitor disease, isolate causal factors for outbreaks, allocate medical personnel to infected areas, and even decide where to place medical facilities.
  • Meteorological and climate centers: Predict short-term weather phenomena, protect people and property from short-term severe storm events, and determine long-term impacts of climate change.
  • Emergency management agencies: Serve the needs of victims of natural and man-made disasters. Examples of such disasters include floods, hurricanes, tornados, earth-quakes, chemical spills, riots and conflict.
  • Military and military support organizations: Protect the nation against armed aggression through intelligence, surveillance, military planning, troop and hardware deployment and logistics.

All the organizations in the preceding list are mission oriented. They typically have mission statements that clearly and concisely outline their goals, objectives, and mandates. Any GIS design for such organizations must target the fulfilment of those mandates. Otherwise, the organization won’t adopt, or successfully implement the GIS.


Conservation, relief, philanthropic, research, and educational organizations and foundations aren’t in operation to make money, nor do they have specific government mandates. They often decide their objectives based on their own mission statements, but those mission statements are highly variable because of the wide variety of tasks, and change very quickly as a response to changing demands and circumstances. Some organizations, such as research organizations, don’t actually know what their final output might be. Instead, they need the flexibility to perform as wide a range of analyses as possible.

REAL WORLD GIS – Here are some examples to demonstrate the wildly different non-profit organizations and the ways they might use GIS:

  • A relief organization needs to manage the collection, packaging and dissemination of food and medical supplies to a third world nation that has few roads and little equipment.
  • A conservation group is trying to find land that has a high level of wildlife habitat diversity and owners who are willing to negotiate conservation easements or the outright sale of the land.
  • A university department wants to develop a combination teaching and research laboratory that can equipment, software licensing, datasets and continued software training for extended periods of time.
  • A philanthropic organization picks people for funding based on their contribution to research that results in improvements to the human condition. The organization needs to be able to identify these individuals and wants to spread such awards around geographically.
  • A college admissions department wants to target students from across the nation whose entrance exam scores and scholastic potential are in the top 5 percent of their graduating classes.

You can design a GIS for organizations that have variable needs (such as the examples in the preceding list), but you need to exercise great care. The spatial information product (for example, the list with names and addresses of targeted students) might be the primary need for the GIS. But in some cases, simply having the system in place for a long time might satisfy a major need that employees have for flexible access and opportunities for experimentation and modeling. Some organizations also have the added complexity of rapid turnover in personnel. So, their training needs may be more important that the hardware or software needs. In some cases, these kinds of organizations use GIS only periodically, so they have minimal operation needs. In these situations, the organizations may prefer to outsource their GIS operations rather than incurring the expense of operating an in-house system.


Each organization is unique. Each has its own culture, organizational structure, history and traditions, needs and mandates, and vision. These differences have a profound impact on whether the organization can effectively use GIS, or any technology, and whether it can easily integrate that technology into the existing operations. So, you need a thorough knowledge of the structure of an organization – including how decisions flow from place to place, who has what job responsibilities, and how general operations work – to be able to incorporate GIS effectively into the organization.

You can really begin to understand an organization’s structure by creating, or having a consultant create, a detailed organizational diagram. Such a diagram helps define where the GIS fits within the organization and shows who answers to whom. GIS is about sharing data resources, and an organization’s structure can help you see how, where and to what extent data sharing takes place.

Introducing GIS changes an organization in the following ways:

  • Change in priorities: While the GIS becomes more functional, especially when it improves productivity, the priorities of the organization may shift to take advantage of these improvements.
  • Change in the organizational hierarchy: While the system grows, the GIS may become more important to organizational groups you hadn’t anticipated. Keeping your organizational diagram current helps you track the various groups and their needs.
  • Change in workflow: GIS changes who does what, how they do it, and when it gets done. Tasks that took weeks if performed by hand with analog maps, might take hours with GIS. However, the people doing the work might need completely different skills, which could cause managers to hire different personnel to accomplish the same tasks.
  • Change in the types and amounts of products: Because GIS offers different output, such as animations, flythroughs, and many more, the products you generate may augment or even replace your existing ones.
  • Changes in training needs: The speed of change is increasing. Both the organization and the individuals may need training to keep up with new developments. You definitely need to have a well-designed plan for training.
  • Change in financial distribution: You can’t get GIS on the cheap. You may need to spend money on GIS analysts, rather than field personnel.
  • Change in space allocation and design: You might want to get rid of some of those maps cases and get a good climate-controlled room or two.


Organizations require people – people to run them, people to supply them, people to finance them, and people to manage them. Well, not surprisingly, GIS also requires people. Good, dedicated, hard-working, well-equipped, happy people can make any operation (including GIS) function at peak efficiency. On the other hand, ineffective, apathetic, lazy, poorly trained, disgruntled people can just as easily destroy any chance for an operation’s survival.

Nearly every recent GIS system-wide failure has resulted from people and planning problems, not from poor data, computer issues, software or earthquakes. Here are a few scenarios that can result in failure:

  • Ineffective sponsorship: Some systems fail because the system sponsor loses interest when the organization or governing body doesn’t see the value and removes support. This situation might occur because of lack of information, misinformation, or a lack of useful output. Organizations need someone to champion the GIS so that the system sponsor is always aware of its potential and actual successes.
  • Missing or faulty goals: A GIS that has no goals (or had goals that are at odds with the overall organization’s goals) is almost certain to fail or operate poorly. I’ve seen more than one system fail because it was built around sources of data (such as new sensors and GPS), rather than with an idea of products or potential clientele.
  • Incomplete implementation: Systems that meet only part of the organization’s spatial data goals are a failure, even if they keep operating. For example, you may have five units that need spatial products, but only three of them use the GIS. This problem can stem from unit managers not understanding the usefulness of GIS data. Or perhaps certain units or individuals resist the technology because they don’t see the usefulness or fear that introducing GIS might compromise their position in the organization.
  • Lack of cooperation: Turf wars, particularly within organizations that have multiple GIS-related operations, have cause many GIS implementations to operate poorly. Large,, complex, multi-user organizations need strong management when data sharing, equipment access, and jealousy about disparate resource allocation cause internal units to resist cooperating.
  • Resistance to change: Employees, particularly long-time employees who might feel marginalized by the new technology, may drag their feet when it comes to adopting unfamiliar technology. Here’s an old and still quite true saying: If they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.


Ken Eason devised a series of principles (known, not surprisingly, as Eason’s principles) that can help you introduce any technology into existing organizational structures:

  • Serve the organization’s needs, rather than just provide technical support. Make the integration of GIS part of the organization; don’t relegate it to some secondary status, like you would if fixing broken computers or reformatting hard drives.
  • Give employees the ability and willingness to make the system work. Employees who can’t contribute to the system because they lack the necessary knowledge or ability often become unwilling to support that system.
  • Prepare a planned process of change based on how the organization workflow will change. Because organizations typically have their own structure, any change in that structure should produce as little disruption as possible.
  • Make employees stakeholders in the system. For example, you can tie job responsibility or individual employee objectives to GIS system success. Employees who benefit from innovation will support it.
  • Make sure that the system meets the organization’s goals or solves a problem. Incorporating new technology because it’s hot, rather than to address existing goals, often causes the organization to stray from its original purpose.
  • Provide a system that allows cooperation and make incumbent employees feel like they’re a part of that system. Established, loyal employees are an asset to any organization, so give them every opportunity to become integrated into the new approaches.
  • Meet the needs of the individual employees. If the system makes the workload easier or reduces employees’ stress, allowing them to enjoy their work more, that system has a much better chance of success.
  • Provide education and training for the organization’s management and the individual employees. Although managers may not be responsible for operating the GIS, they need to understand its relevance to the organization’s goals. GIS is advanced technology, and it’s always changing. The more employees know about the technology, the more quickly they can understand and fully integrate it.
  • Plan a progressive form of evolutionary growth. Changes in organizational needs, technological innovations, software updates, and the natural growth of the GIS demand that you have planning for such changes in place to avoid disruption in the workflow.
  • Complement existing design principles and organizational change methodologies. The more closely the new approach functions like the old, the more quickly both management and employees will adopt it, leading to a smooth transition.


You need to assess the costs and benefits of a GIS implementation if the GIS is designed to bring real financial benefits to the organization. Although organizations that don’t generate income from the implementation of GIS don’t use it as often they might still be able to justify the expense because of other benefits, such as savings in time and improved product quality.

When you perform a cost-benefit analysis (CBA), you determine whether something has more benefit than expense, or vice versa. For example, if you invest $10,000 in something and it returns $16,000, you’ve netted $6,000 on your investment. Usually, you write the relationship as a ratio of the benefit divided by the cost. In this example, your ratio would be 1.6 to 1.

Tip: A common business practice is to look at the benefit-to-cost ratio for any large investment, including software tools like GIS. In some business where the author worked with, a ratio of 1.6 to 1 would be a minimum standard needed to justify the expenditure.

Although a 1.6 to 1 ratio id good, a ratio of 2.2 to 1 (or even 3 to 1) is better. However, consider other institutional, intangible, or even non-economic considerations that can justify a 1.6 to 1 or even lower ratio. Such considerations might include a desire to shift direction, improve worker satisfaction, or improve product quality. All these changes might prove important in the future.

Incorporating GIS into any organization often quickly incurs costs, but enjoying the benefits can take some time, which is one of the more difficult barriers to its adoption. In most cases, the first year’s costs outweigh the benefits because the initial outlays involve staffing, planning, setup, automation, application development and training. One pragmatic approach to CBA for GIS implementation is to use a six-year planning horizon. In the first year, your ratio might be 0,5 to 1, which means it cost you more than you made. Over the years, this ratio should improve. By year six, you should see ratios of 2.5 to 1 or better. Typically, a six-year average exceeds 1.6 to 1 if you design your GIS implementation well.

When performing CBA, you may have trouble defining the units of measure for both costs and benefits. You base your costs and benefits on the costs and financial benefits of the GIS products. Costs, often easier to determine than benefits, include hardware data, software, application development, staffing, training and maintenance. The benefits come in four groups:

  • Direct: Improvements over the manual methods employed before GIS. Operational efficiencies often result from reducing staff, increasing staff productivity, and even reducing purchases of analog products.
  • Agency: Increases in the company productivity and product quality.
  • Government: The benefits to government agencies other than the one actually implementing the GIS. This benefit also applies to partnerships that result in reduced costs or shared resources. Better, more timely products result in greater customer satisfaction and often increase sales.
  • External: Improvements in the quality and quantity of external factors, perhaps including the impact of products (for example, you may save a historic site as a result of the output of GIS), improved public perception of your company (the good-neighbor effect), and the regional benefits of increased tourism. These external benefits may be harder to quantify but often have a lasting, long-term positive effect on your company.

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